Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Meanings of Clowns

Today is Wavy Gravy's 76th birthday. A peace activist who has dedicated his life to making this a kinder place for all who live on the planet, he has done work both small and local and large and global. And he's a clown.

I heard an interview with him years ago where he explained that he actually is a clown and was going to an anti-war march one day when his schedule was unexpectedly tight. He didn't have time to stop home after bringing joy at a children's hospital and so went to the peace rally in costume. It became apparent quickly that the right-wing roughians didn't look so manly beating up a clown and thus left him alone. So he began regularly showing up to events dressed as a clown -- both as a political statement about what a circus the world had become and as a matter of personal safety.

Wavy Gravy's birthday coincides with the release of a new film by Bobcat Goldthwait whose initial film was "Shakes, the Clown" -- called "the Citizen Kane of drunk clown movies." Add to that the news of the weird which has focused on a new business where you can hire an evil clown to stalk your child on his or her birthday, and there's just too much clowningness in the world right now not to comment.

Clowns began as comedic performers. They were meant to be funny with their zany slapstick antics. But with the ability to amplify voices, linguistic comedy has all but replaced clowning. The are certainly some who have maintained and extended the art -- Bill Irwin and Roberto Benigni, for example. Cirque du Soleil has even brought back the circus clown to our collective consciousness as an artist. But the clown has taken on new meaning. Whether it is a sense of obsolescence -- "Bozo" being an insult like the term "clown" itself -- or the sense that they are not funny, but to be feared. It has become cliche to invoke a fear of clowns, especially after a string of clown-based horror films.

Why did clowning change its cultural meaning? Was it Ringling Brothers and the failure to innovate? Was it inevitable? Can anyone rejuvenate clowning or is it a thing of past?